Shuffle: Schubert's Last Written Words, Set to Music

Jan 25, 2018

'I thought it was a wonderful idea, but also terrifying.'

Composer Evan Fein studied piano with Gerardo Teissonnière at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Fein now lives in New York and teaches at the Juilliard School. But he and his former teacher share a lifelong love of Schubert’s music that recently brought them back together as collaborators.

A shared love of Schubert
Teissonnière’s relationship with Schubert’s music goes back to his student days. Even though Schubert wrote plenty of music for solo piano, Teissonnière especially fell in love with his music for voice.

In the premiere performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Evan Fein's 'Letzte Brief' segued directly into a full performance of Schubert's 'Die Winterreise.' The performance featured English translations along with illustrations by Walter Green.
Credit CYDNEY WEINGART

“There is nothing more special than having that collaboration with a singer where we are both presenting the poetry with our sound, with our music,” Teissonnière said.

'If anybody's going to speak before "Winterreise," it would have to be Schubert himself.'

One of Schubert’s most beloved works is “Die Winterreise,” an hour-long song cycle that tells the story of a lonely protagonist wandering through a cold winter’s night after losing a lover. Historians have said the protagonist is likely a stand-in for Schubert himself.

An odd request
Schubert wrote “Winterreise” in the midst of deteriorating health. His last written words were a letter to his close friend, Franz von Schober, in which he asked for a pile of books to help pass the time. It was an odd request for someone with just days to live.

Last year, Teissonnière wrote to Fein with a request of his own: a new song to serve as a prelude to “Winterreise.”

“I thought it was a wonderful idea, but also terrifying,” Fein said. “How do you add to something that is perfect and also quite an extended work?”

Pianist Gerardo Teissonnière (left) and tenor Corey Shotwell (right) premiered Evan Fein's musical setting of Schubert's last letter at the Cleveland Institute of Music's Mixon Hall.
Credit SEAN MARTIN

Fein came across Schubert’s deathbed letter to his friend. He decided Schubert’s last written words would be the ideal text for the new song.

“If anybody’s going to speak before ‘Winterreise,’ it would have to be Schubert himself,” Fein said.

Combining prose and music

'We want to leave our audiences transformed, hopefully, and inspired and lifted even though it is such a sad and dark tale of winter.'

Schubert’s letter wasn’t exactly music-friendly. Unlike the poems Schubert used in his songs, the letter wasn’t written in neat, symmetrical phrases.

To make the song sound more conversational, Fein used irregular musical phrases to emulate the spontaneity of everyday speech. But he wouldn’t know how well that worked until someone actually sang his music.

Tenor Corey Shotwell recently premiered the piece with Teissonnière at the piano.

“He has a great knack for singable melodies, both Schubert and Evan,” Shotwell said.

A seamless transition
Fein also borrowed other elements of Schubert’s style to create a seamless transition between his music and Schubert’s. For inspiration, he turned to the song that opens “Winterreise.”

“There’s this constant moving eighth-note figure in the first song of the Schubert,” Fein said. “I lifted that idea and put it into my song.”

Fein said someone not familiar with “Winterreise” may not notice an extra song at the beginning. Regardless, Teissonnière said the full song cycle is always a special experience for him and the audience.

“We want to leave our audiences transformed, hopefully, and inspired and lifted even though it is such a sad and dark tale of winter.”

Hear Evan Fein's 'Letzte Brief,' and Gute Nacht from 'Winterreise'